A subtle fade-in on a ride cymbal blends into dry acoustic piano chords played at the top of each bar. "I quit church today/Turned my back towards her/And just walked away" croons Toby Morrell in his undeniably sorrow-tinged timbre. This gives way to a Bazan-esque indie ballad of a chorus, complete with a soaring melody and an overly emotional delivery. Thus begins Matt & Toby's I Quit Church, the low-energy, deeply moving and expertly-paced cry of the disenfranchised Christian.
When beloved emo band Emery released their Classics Reimagined EP earlier this year, fans wondered if the more subdued and slower tempo feel of those tracks was where the group was sonically headed. Perhaps that is not true for Emery's upcoming record, but that is definitely the case here (even with this project being put out by the group's two loudmouth members). There aren't any amp-busting moments here, as the duo prefers to let swells, grooves, and ambience tell their narrative.
Indeed, text-painting is essential to the cohesive sound on I Quit Church. Matt and Toby had been advertising on their BadChristian podcast that they intended to write a record that frequently switched back and forth between original songs that critique the Church and stylistic arrangements of well-known hymns. This potential dichotomy fascinated me, and so, I was somewhat disappointed to find that the album is actually much more worship-heavy than proclaimed (9 of the 11 songs qualify there). Even though I think that a proper balance between the two extremes would have been even more compelling, this is still the strongest release under the BadChristian label by far.
Aside from the opener, the other original lyric, "Pastor Stopped By," is an utterly heart-breaking reality that is also one of the duo's most musically intriguing songs in their discography. The melodic dissonance in the chorus sits atop biting staccato strings and a peculiar chord progression that evokes strange emotion, fitting the angst of lines such as "I asked him if he could remember/The sermon he preached six weeks ago/He smiled and laughed and said/'Son, I don't'/And they don't." Surprisingly, the other two non-hymns are based off of Psalms 67 and 4, and although the melodies can be a little meandering at times, both songs fit into the sonic flow and thematic journey of the album.
This sense of movement is most noticeable once the hymns fully kick in. The Western waltz of "Have Thine Own Way" leads into the brush snare groove of "Before the Throne of God." Then the haunting combination of acoustic guitar, vocals, strings, and a ghost-like piano on "The Old Rugged Cross" makes way for the chilling opening lyric of "Christ is Risen" ("Oh, look at the tree/Oh, isn't the fruit good to eat?/Oh, and Adam will die/Oh, in Christ we will all be alive"). In fact, there isn't a production choice that feels out of place here, helping an album of "old church songs" feel consistently fresh.
For a couple of seasoned veterans in the Christian music scene, Matt & Toby end up accomplishing a lot with I Quit Church. They make the verse-chorus-verse-chorus nature of hymns feel unique each time by adding an unexpected element to every song. Simultaneously, they capture the melancholic weight that these historic words deserve with synonymous instrumentation. Maybe most importantly, they have created a work of art for those that have become frustrated with the Church to deeply connect with. By airing out deserved lamentation and mixing it with lyrics of tradition, they've given musical hope to those of us who can admit that "this world is much harder than we thought."
- Review date: 10/10/17, written by Mason Haynie of Jesusfreakhideout.com